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Blackwood Farm
Anne Rice
New York, Alfred A. Knopf, 2002.
$26.95, 538 pages, ISBN 0-375-41199-2.

Georges-Claude Guilbert
Université de Rouen

Blackwood Farm takes one step further the gradual fusion of the "Vampire Chronicles" series and the "Lives of the Mayfair Witches" series that was recently observed in Merrick (2000). Venomous critics might see this as a purely commercial move on Anne Rice's part: although many of her readers enjoyed both series, she knew that some had a preference; with this development, her sales could only increase. The truth of the matter is, it works exceedingly well, and the fans can only rejoice. I use the word "fans" quite deliberately, since Rice, like pop stars and movie stars, is the object of a cult. I am very tempted to use the phrase "popular fiction" when discussing her novels, although I know she dislikes it, to the point of addressing the issue in Blackwood Farm. "I fanned out the books and perused their covers. They ranged from what we so arrogantly call popular fiction to books on anthropology, sociology and modern philosophy." [173, italics mine] But she shouldn't see it as a charge, on the contrary. Think of all the French and English nineteenth-century classics whose authors wrote nothing but popular fiction, which was serialized in newspapers. Each episode was eagerly awaited by readers the way today's TV viewers await, say, Buffy the Vampire Slayer new episodes.

I recently reviewed (in Cercles) Anne Rice and Sexual Politics: The Early Novels, by James R. Keller (2000). If I may be so bold, disrespectful of basic academic rules and unthinkingly narcissistic as to quote myself, I then stated: "Anne Rice belongs to that particular species of American writers, popular novelists who delight millions of indulgent fans and manage at the same time to raise keen interest in academe. Keller writes: 'Rice’s choice of subject matter reveals a negotiation between high and low culture, between the elite and the popular, between literature and commercial fiction.' [6] Many university professors would agree to say that she cannot write to save her life, but that does not make her any less thrilling. Some mock her for the way her English characters speak (nobody talks like that), but her ideas are utterly fascinating. And her characters even more so."

Well, Rice certainly still steers between high and low culture, notably as far as her references are concerned: a bit of Ancient World here and there, the usual helping of Italian Renaissance, a lot of paintings generally speaking. Most of the time it works, sometimes it falls a bit flat. Particularly so, in the case of Blackwood Farm, when it comes to Shakespeare. Rice has always been eager to share her enthusiasms, even in occasional letters to the press or telephone calls to her official website, but I'm not sure we need to be told quite so forcefully and repeatedly about her passion for Kenneth Branagh's Shakespearean work. Dickens is also a bit intrusive in this new book, as well as effusive pronouncements like: "She took me through the magnificent film Immortal Beloved, in which Gary Oldman plays Beethoven to such perfection that every time we watched it I cried." [115] Although of course the title of Bernard Rose's film could be the subtitle of Blackwood Farm, and it is, after all, a character who thus raves.

There is still the odd English character (Talamasca oblige), but he does not talk quite so oddly. And all things considered, it has become a tradition: in vampire fiction the scholarly experts are always English, and since Giles in the Buffy TV series, no one would want it any other way. Talking about tradition, it is comforting to see that however twenty-first-century Rice's fiction gets, it still retains most of the elements of the good old Gothic genre of yesteryear (albeit superficially so, as some may argue); although I'm sure many scholarly exegetes of the said genre would wince at the thought. It also incorporates many of the elements of good old (Southern) New American Gothic.

In my review of Anne Rice and Sexual Politics: The Early Novels, by James R. Keller, I examined the way Rice addressed homosexuality. She has considerably strengthened that streak with Blackwood Farm, in a more open, easier manner. Having read her son Christopher Rice's two interesting and very gay novels (A Density of Souls, 2000 and The Snow Garden, 2001), and seen his picture, I cannot help thinking that the beautiful hero, Tarquin Blackwood, AKA Quinn, is largely based on him. This time the book is dedicated to Christopher Rice exclusively. There are hilarious passages when Quinn's sexual experiences are summed up, which encompass just about every sex, every gender (no, it is not the same thing), every age group and every species of natural and supernatural beings. But then, even sleeping practices are on the odd side at Blackwood Manor, with people of every age sharing beds with servants, for instance. The euphemisms are fewer too, and the words "hard" and "cock" recurrent. Also, and this is more than anecdotal, the word "queer" now appears, showing among other things that Rice reads her academic critics. Naturally, Rice's vampire fiction has always been extremely homoerotic. For the record, AIDS makes a entrance too, although, precisely, not in a gay context.

As the cover pleasantly illustrates, precious cameos play an important part in this new novel. And characters from other Rice novels make endearing cameo appearances, like (the ghost of) Julien Mayfair. I don't know if the classification of her novels is her idea or her publishers', but instead of "Vampire Chronicles", "Lives of the Mayfair Witches" and "New Tales of the Vampires" (or even "New Vampire Chronicles", as some of her European publishers seem to have determined) I suggest "Vampires and Witches".

What is remarkable about Rice is that with every new novel she stretches our willing suspension of disbelief one step further, and still it functions. Just about every supernatural creature ever invented in the context of Western and Middle-Eastern myth, legend, religion, superstition or fiction now has a part in her universe, plus a few of her own. Her imagination is as rich as ever. Quinn is a witch who communicates with spirits and ghosts, and as if this were not enough, he becomes a vampire. This time, he is the narrator. The magnificent Lestat de Lioncourt narrated many of the preceding books and Quinn has little to envy him in this respect. But Lestat is very much present. Indeed what transpires between the two foretells splendid developments in future novels.

Of course, the style is still a bit contrived at times, with odd mixtures of would-be colloquial "young" American English and overwrought old-fashioned sentences, or simply unwelcome "heavy" lines such as: "Of course I told him about the stranger, the stranger in whom no one believed, apparently, and that I expected in short order to be accused of having actually written myself the stranger's letter to me." [279] Rice always makes sure to provide some "excuse" in advance, though, as her autodiegetic narrators are often foreign, or privately educated, or overgifted precocious children, or all of the above. Still, when they write "yesterday" instead of "the day before" I cannot help cringing a little. Other sentences are slightly annoying in a story narrated by a dazzling witch-vampire with a tremendously eventful past: "'Same as the mausoleum outside,' I whispered. (I always talk out loud to myself when I'm confused.)" [174]

In Blackwood Farm, state-of-the-art technology is more than ever integrated, and people hilariously but credibly communicate by e-mail with ghosts. Although I still wonder why Quinn, who owns PCs, DVD players and fax machines does not carry a cell phone when he goes off into the swamp by himself on a pirogue. Other comic elements abound, notably in sentences like: "Then I realized to my horror that my pants were still unzipped. I'd said a Hail Mary to the Virgin Mary while officially exposing myself." [203] This in a very Catholic novel (always the best context for Gothic fiction) which of course mixes sex and religion is particularly relevant, however tautological. Camp is not forgotten either, I am glad to say.

Blackwood Farm offers countless metafictional aspects, not so much of the intellectual reflection-upon-the-art-of-writing variety, but still amusing. It alludes to other Rice novels incessantly, in a non-obtrusive way that makes the reader feel like (re)reading them (so it cannot be bad for business). The narration, as always, functions along the Chinese doll pattern, and Rice continues to exploit the notion that she is only a mouthpiece or a ghost-writer (pun half-intended) for actual vampire writers.

To conclude, Blackwood Farm shows that Anne Rice is in top form, and its ending makes me wish I didn't have to wait another year for the next offering (or more, if she should unwisely decide to produce a non-vampire non-witch story before). The identification process works better than ever, and that is of course Rice's principal quality: the reader never wishes he were a slayer and stabbed the vampires through the heart, he wishes he were a wealthy gorgeous immortal himself, with a hypertrophied aesthetic sense and the world at his feet.

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